A New England artist foundation and residency program grows under a professor’s guidance

Gaily colored petals of long-stemmed cosmos lilt along on the sea-swept winds that blow across Great Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine, where Patricia Bailey, an associate professor of art at Western Carolina University, directs artist residencies and carries out other responsibilities as president of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation. Formed in 1993, the foundation is dedicated to the artistic vision of two painters, John Heliker and Robert LaHotan, who made their home on the island. After Heliker’s death, LaHotan charged the foundation’s board specifically with forming a residency program that would enable artists to continue coming to the island to find inspiration and to create. And after LaHotan’s death in 2002, Bailey, a longtime friend of both artists, worked diligently as a leader on the foundation’s board to open the Heliker-LaHotan home and studios to artists.

WCU’s Patricia Bailey, with a friend, directs artist residencies
at the Great Cranberry Island, Maine, retreat.

The foundation welcomed its first four residents in 2006. In 2007, there were eight artists; 11 in 2008; and 14 in 2009. Among them was printmaker Joseph Norman, who said he came during a transitional period in his life to learn to work again in silence and be comfortable alone and with his thoughts. The self-proclaimed night owl would come alive when the sun set against a low tree line, casting a warm pink light across the tidal basin and filling the studio with the glow of evening. In his first week alone he created 30 works. The island studios offer a wealth of natural light, views of the tidal basin and solitude on the private shore, which is what Heliker and LaHotan wanted. “This place is so supportive of uninterrupted work,” said Bailey.

The foundation has a growing relationship with WCU. Tara Jones ’08 has served as Heliker-LaHotan facility coordinator and Bailey’s assistant. The foundation’s Web site, www.heliker-lahotan.org, is maintained by WCU alumnus Andrew Kinnear ’06. In addition, the foundation donated a 1989 Heliker painting titled “The Visit II” to Western Carolina’s Fine Art Museum. The work, hung in 2005 during an inaugural exhibition “Worldviews: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” helps anchor the focus of the collection, and will greatly strengthen the museum’s teaching mission, said Martin DeWitt, founding director of the museum.

“As we examine the beautiful work of Mr. Heliker, we can discuss his early roots as a modernist, and trace his extraordinary journey as artist and teacher, the influence of which continues to this day,” DeWitt said. The Fine Art Museum may in coming years become host to an exhibit of some of Heliker’s works. In addition, DeWitt has a special connection to the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation. Both his brothers, each of whom is a painter, completed residencies on Great Cranberry Island. The cultural round-robin also has meant that artists such as painter and printmaker Norman have appeared as visiting artists at WCU, and through this connection learned about the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation and its residency opportunities.

The artists’ vibrancy during residencies is contagious, Bailey said. Dinnertime conversations welcome lively discussion about academia, teaching methods and, of course, art. After time spent on the island, Bailey, who teaches drawing and painting, comes back to her WCU classroom with a renewed sense of purpose. “I’m energized,” Bailey said. “I’m energized by the artists I have the privilege of working with.”